Nevil Shute – time for a modest revival

As I walk the streets of central Melbourne on my lunch break on the two days each week I work in the office now rather than at home, I do reflect on how (as I like to say) almost On The Beach empty they are.

Nevil Shute is one of my very favourite novelists, and has been since I was 16, as I have written previously. On The Beach is probably his most important, and tragic, novel; tragic because everyone dies in the end, important because perhaps, being as popular as he was in the 1950s, it helped to prevent a real nuclear war breaking out.

But it is not exactly a fun read, not for a teenager in the 1980s during the Cold War reading about how the residents of Melbourne face the slowly approaching but inevitable end of the world.

Aside from On The Beach, which is most well known because of it’s film adaptation, Nevil Shute wrote quite a lot of other novels. A Town Like Alice, both as a film with Peter Finch in the 1950s and a miniseries in the early 1980s, is particularly very well known.

Those two novels are still in print, but it is increasingly rare to encounter any of his other novels in bookshops (or libraries) anymore.

He published 21 novels in his lifetime, plus two novellas published posthumously in the one volume soon after his death, and another novella found in draft form in a library manuscript collection in the early 21st century by his fans and then finally published. Shute might not have liked those posthumously published works, but I sure did.

For the most part, Shute has a gentle and optimistic view of humanity. There are rarely any villains in his stories, mostly just challenges that his heroes and heroines need to overcome through their own resourcefulness. And there are many pilots and yachtsmen.

His novels can be divided into five main categories – the first three novels he published in the 1920s, which closely resemble conventional thrillers; his 1930s works which are rather atypical (I find it hard to categorise Ruined City or An Old Captivity); his war novels, starting with the pre-war warning about high altitude bombing What Happened to the Corbetts; his immediately postwar works such as The Chequer Board, Round The Bend, and No Highway; and then there are his seven Australian novels, written after he decided to migrate with his family to Australia after the war.

We mostly remember Shute for his two most famous of those Australian novels, On The Beach and A Town Like Alice. Some might remember the 1986 miniseries adaption of The Far Country. But the others are worth reading too, for the most part. Requiem For A Wren is a moving and tragic love story in the aftermath of the war. The Rainbow And The Rose is particularly poetic and immersing. In The Wet, which is a bizarre dream sequence set in the then future (1982) told by a dying man to a clergyman during a Queensland flood, is, despite the preposterous premises in many aspects of the story, a highly entertaining read.

It’s only Beyond The Black Stump, of his Australian novels, that I did not enjoy enough to read more than once.

And then, at the end, just before Shute died in 1960, we have Trustee From The Toolroom, which is in a class of it’s own, impossible to categorise. It postdates all his Australian novels, but has nothing to do with Australia, rather, it’s modest hero is a typically English mechanic who travels, relying on the accumulated good will he has built up over his lifetime through his good nature, to French Polynesia to save his orphaned niece’s inheritance. The hero is a rather naive fellow, but his naïveté is what seems to get him through – he does not see any ill intentions around him, and his goodness draws out the generosity of those whose lives he has touched.

Perhaps that is why Trustee From The Toolroom usually tops the list of favourite Shute novels, as voted by his fans in the Nevil Shute Foundation website.

In any event, most of his novels are worth reading, not once, but at least twice or three times.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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